In our Wildlife Issue of The Kodai Chronicle we interviewed Nik Sekhran, KIS alumnus and Chief Conservation Officer at WWF, USA. We talked about his memories of Kodaikanal, and unpacked his thoughts on the environmental issues that the community in Kodaikanal needs to address.
In this second part of the same interview, Jacob Cherian, Environment & Wildlife Editor at The Kodai Chronicle, takes a macro perspective, mining Nik’s insights on the future of conservation, and his thoughts on how young conservationists can contribute.
Jacob Cherian: Zooming out of Kodai, focusing on India. How is India doing in the conservation stakes?
Nik Sekhran: It will be hard to notice this if you’re living in India because there are a million issues to tackle on all fronts at all times. But if you look at Asia, India, Bhutan, and Nepal have outperformed many other countries in terms of conservation, and the proof of the pudding lies in the tiger population. Tiger populations have gone up in India, Nepal, and Bhutan; they are also going up in Russia. In the meantime, the tiger went extinct in Cambodia about 15 years ago. There is a plan to reintroduce tigers but population extirpations of large carnivores are hard to reverse. Once a species like the tiger has gone, it is very hard to bring back. The problem is that prey density doesn’t exist there anymore because of over-hunting. The news from Laos is similarly sobering. Thailand is doing relatively better. Other populations: the Malayan tiger in Malaysia, the Sumatran tiger, are in real difficulty. If you use the tiger as a totem of success, India is doing better than other countries.
That is notwithstanding the fact that you have such a huge human population density across large swathes of the tiger’s range in India and I think it shows that with the right leadership, the right social mores, the right citizen action, and the right investment you can make a difference.
JC: If we were to look beyond the star species that tend to attract a lot of funding, to other species that attract less funding, what do you think we need to do?
NS: I think in general, if you go to different parts of India, regardless of whether tigers are there or not, you will find there are a lot of conservation groups and they are working on a range of issues. Take the small cats: in the North East there is a group of people working on fishing cats, and so on. That’s the good news. But we certainly need to be doing much more. Turning to Kodai, I think there is a lack of understanding of the biodiversity of the hills. For instance we have the uropeltidae snakes- the shieldtail snakes- that Rom Whitaker and others have documented. That is an example of something that is completely unusual, unknown and endemic to the mountain ranges, and so amazing. Similarly with some of the invertebrates, and some of the birds. There is plenty of conservation work to be done here focused on these species.
Overall, I think there is a lack of understanding of the biodiversity of these hills amongst the residents, including about what is in our backyard. I hope efforts like those of the Centre for Environment and Humanity (CEH) at Swedish House will educate people far and wide about the biodiversity of the hills and inspire them to take action.
JC: Tell us about some of the priorities for place-based conservation.
NS: We have been trying to raise nature up the global policy agenda, and to increase funding for conservation. One of our key areas receiving attention is an initiative known as ‘30By30’ which seeks to conserve 30 percent of the world’s land and sea surface by the year 2030. This seems like a huge challenge. But if you start to include lands that are under natural habitat but other kinds of land use, and you find a way to accommodate that land use with nature, we might actually get there. If we just count land that is under the stewardship and ownership of Indigenous Peoples, we would get to 33% of terrestrial land. But we need to secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples to succeed, because these areas are coming under pressure.
There are large chunks of land under military control that have a security privilege, that are very important for biodiversity. That is certainly true of India. Also many border areas happen to be biodiversity storehouses. It is interesting if you look at India and chart the location of forests they tend to be on the borders of states. These are more peripheral areas in terms of the central economic distribution and human populations. These landscapes demand attention from a conservation perspective.
JC: So, let’s talk about self-care. For a number of young activists and environmentalists, eco-anxiety is increasingly real. How do you protect yourself from compassion exhaustion?
NS: I have this amazing ability to remake myself with sleep. If I have been depressed the day before, I usually wake up optimistic and energised and ready to charge ahead. You have got to have a spirit of optimism and a ‘can do’ attitude because otherwise we will never do anything. Hope was the last thing that came out of Pandora’s Box and you have got to capture every last drop of it. That said, it can sometimes be hard to sustain hope.
I have fought conservation battles and lost– that can be horribly dispiriting. I remember witnessing the fires in East Borneo, Indonesia, in the 1990s and in particular those raging in the heart of the highly biodiverse Kutai National Park. I had spent time there as a young man, tracking orangutans. The Kutai National Park — which houses dry dipterocarp forest– has one of the highest tree species diversity of any park anywhere in the world. I happened to visit during the fires, and saw the charred remains of orangutans and other wildlife, and watched the forest trees disappear literally before my eyes in plumes of flames. It was difficult– knowing that the fires had been deliberately set to pave the way for human settlement.
I can look at my career through the lens of those sorts of losses and feel despair. Or, I can look at it through the lens of the many successes we are registering. This morning, I was on a two-hour call with the Bhutanese government whom we are partnering with to conserve Bhutan’s natural areas, which are still largely intact. And there is huge progress there, notwithstanding the fact that there are big challenges. In Bhutan, there is very little arable land.
Down in the lowlands, 70 percent of the crops of some smallholders, who are already poor, are lost to wild pigs, porcupines, gaur, elephants and other wild animals. Somehow the Buddhist mentality allows wildlife to persist, or certainly the Bhutanese version of Buddhism, as this is not true in all Buddhist countries. But will that be the case 30 to 40 years down the line? That is why it is important to engage with young people in Bhutan today. It is their job to pick up the mantle of conservation and carry it forward, to ensure that the next generation has the same preoccupation with and concerns about the fate of the natural world that this generation has.
JC: A lot of well-intentioned people don’t have the training or just the exposure to be able to take care of themselves. Sometimes a few daily practices and rituals, can help immensely. What are those specific things that keep you sane in this line of work?
NS: I take a pilgrimage once a year to nature. I try to get as far away as possible from the beaten track. We have a home in South Africa and there is nothing I love more than going to the middle of the central Kalahari desert and camping wild, with lions and everything else. That for me cleanses my soul: it is wonderful.
Different things work for different people. I try to live in places that are close to nature. This constant connection to nature matters– it feeds my soul. As I sit talking to you, I see hummingbirds feeding on flowers in front of my window. Every now and then a fox will walk past. It is the small things, small pleasures, that keep you going, and these sustain me.
JC: What do you think we can learn from the Covid 19 pandemic? What would we need to treat the climate crisis and biodiversity loss with the same urgency and unity?
NS: I don’t know if we have learned from this pandemic. We have been talking about the risk of pandemics for a long time. We have been doing a lot of work at WWF around the genesis of zoonotic diseases spillover. These are diseases that originate in animals, wild or domestic. There have been an increase in the number of zoonotic disease spillovers over the years– two to three happen each year. We have been waiting for the big one. As difficult as COVID-19 has been, it is likely not the big one. The big one would be if you had a disease with even bigger rates of mortality, like ebola, with the same easy transmission of COVID-19.
We need to address the determinants of these zoonotic disease spillovers- anchored in the huge footprint of people on the planet. Yes, we can inoculate ourselves with vaccines but we will continue to be hit by zoonotic diseases unless we find a way to live in harmony with nature and reduce the risks. The pandemic has shown the imperative of moving quickly to make these transitions: to ensure development is more sustainable. Humans are ingenious, and I have litle doubt we will see transformation and progress—but we will need perseverance.
JC: Do you look at the young conservationists of today and wish they focused on something specifically?
NS: I don’t want to be directive, but I think people need to be conscious about the local environment, they need to become active citizens and work to address the environmental and social ills in their community. You can not stand by and live in an elite bubble and allow things just to happen, because those very things will affect you one day. You need to be locally connected to these issues.
All across India, there are active groups who are dealing with these issues and there is no reason why someone can’t be engaged or can’t learn. People can’t say ‘Oh I don’t know or I feel disempowered’, it is a silly answer, a silly point because you can find ways of getting information, you can join groups that take action and you make a difference.
JC: Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share with a 15-year-old conservationist today?
NS: We need you. We need you to engage, we need you to carry the torch for conservation that our generation has carried from previous generations. There is hope, if you engage.